Wednesday, September 5, 2018

The Radical Element

The Radical Element: 12 Stories of Daredevils, Debutantes and Other Dauntless Girls, edited by Jessica Spotswood (2018)

Back of November of 2016 I posted about A Tyranny of Petticoats, a feminist anthology edited by Jessica Spotswood. The Radical Element is the follow-up, and it's just as good.

There weren't any stories I disliked, but four of them particularly stood out to me. "Lady Firebrand" by Megan Shepherd takes place in South Carolina in 1863. Rose is visiting an aunt and uncle with her friend Pauline, a free black woman. They are unhappy about Pauline's presence, but Rose claims she is specially trained to help people who use wheelchairs (which Rose does). Coincidentally (or not?) their visit coincides with a rash of crimes committed by a mysterious Northern Sympathizer called Lord Firebrand.

In "Step Right Up" by Jessica Spotswood, a young woman in Tulsa in 1905 eagerly anticipates the annual visit by a traveling circus. She has been obsessed by the high wire act since she first saw it, and hopes that this year she can finally pursue her dream. Ruby's Uncle Jack, however, is an abusive hothead who doesn't care what she wants and she'll need to contend with him before she can really be free.

Anna-Marie McLemore's "Glamour" is set in the roaring 20s and stars a young woman who is pursuing fame despite not looking the part, but she has a special power that allows her to change her appearance. Grace is Mexican-American and disguising her appearance doesn't keep others' cruel words from affecting her. It's getting harder and harder to pretend she's someone she's not, but how else can she fit in?

"When the Moonlight Isn't Enough" by Dhonielle Clayton is about a very unusual family with a secret they've kept hidden by moving to a new place every few years. Emma is tired of just being a teenage girl who needs to obey her parents, and can't ever form friendships because they'll just be over the next time they need to move. She wants to do something more with her life, something real, something involved, but she also needs to keep her secret closely guarded.

Interestingly, these last two contain otherworldly elements, magical realism, I guess. I remember from A Tyranny of Petticoats the stories I liked least were those with the same kind of elements. I don't know if these stories are just better or if my tastes have changed, but I was a little surprised at how much I liked "Glamour" and "When the Moonlight Isn't Enough." I was less surprised how much I liked the first two I mentioned. These stories are full of young women trying to make their lives their own, despite the expectations of those around them. In some cases, the characters are non-white, which proves extra difficult in the context in which they're living, and the stories also include LGBTQ and gender non-conforming people. There are all sorts of ways these characters are being hindered from living their best lives, but still they persist.

I found the stories in this collection inspiring and hopeful, and just as with A Tyranny of Petticoats I also learned more about the historical periods in which they took place. The authors included notes about the settings and characters which give us a broader context in which to understand the stories. All together this was a very enjoyable collection, and I've found some new authors I now want to read!

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